People fed a steady diet of Hollywood movies about the Vietnam
War probably believe that all three million Vietnam veterans
were drug-crazed killers and rapists who rampaged across the
But Hollywood got it wrong - until now. That's because the
film, We Were Soldiers, gets it right. Ask any Vietnam
veteran who has seen the movie. In fact, ask any American who
has seen it. It is based on a book I wrote with my lifelong
friend Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Hal Moore; a book written precisely
because we believed that a false impression of those soldiers
had taken root in the country which sent them to war and, in
the end, turned its back on the war and the warriors.
I did four tours in Vietnam as a war correspondent for United
Press International - 1965-66, 1971, 1973, and 1975. In the
first three, I spent most of my time in the field with the
troops. I came to know and respect them and even love them,
though most folks might find the words "war" and "love" in the
same sentence unsettling.
In fact, I am far more comfortable in the company of those
once-young soldiers today than with any other group except my
own family. They are my comrades-in-arms, the best friends of
my life. If ever I were to shout "help," they would stampede
to my aid in a heartbeat. They come from all walks of life;
they are black, white, Hispanic, native American, Asian. They
are fiercely loyal, dead honest, entirely generous of their
time and money. They are my brothers, and they did none of the
things Oliver Stone or Francis Ford Coppola would have you
believe all of them did.
On the worst day of my life, in the middle of the worst battle
of the Vietnam War, in a place called Landing Zone X-Ray in
the Ia Drang Valley, I was walking around snapping some
photographs when I caught a movement out of the corner of my
eye. It was a tall, lanky GI who jumped out of a mortar pit
and ran, zig-zagging under fire, toward me. He dove under the
little bush I was crouched behind.
"Joe! Joe Galloway! Don't you know me, man? It's Vince Cantu
from Refugio, Texas!" Vince Cantu and I had graduated together
from Refugio High School, Class of '59. We embraced warmly.
Then he shouted over the din of gunfire: "Joe, you got to get
down and stay down. It's dangerous out here. Men are dying."
Vince told me that he had only ten days left on his tour as a
draftee soldier in the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry
Division. "If I live through this, I will be home in Refugio
for Christmas." I asked Vince to visit my mom and dad but not
tell them too much about where we had met and under what
circumstances. I still have an old photograph from that
Christmas visit - Vince wearing one of those black satin
jackets, with his daughter on his knee, sitting with my
parents in their living room.
Vince Cantu and I are still best friends.
When I got on a Huey leaving LZ X-Ray, I left knowing that 80
young Americans had laid down their lives so that I and others
might survive. An additional 124 men had been terribly wounded
and were on their way to hospitals in Japan and the United
States. I left with a sense of my place among them and an
obligation to tell their stories to any who would listen. I
knew that I had been among men of honor and decency and
Hal Moore and I began our research for We Were Soldiers
Once and Young in 1982. It was a ten-year journey to find
and to bring together those who fought in LZ X-Ray and LZ
Albany, a separate battle in which 155 young Americans died
and 130 were wounded. We had addresses for perhaps no more
than a dozen veterans, but we mailed out a questionnaire to
them to begin the process.
Late one night a week later, my phone rang. On the other end
was Sgt. George Nye, retired and living very quietly in his
home state of Maine. George began talking, and it was almost
stream of consciousness. He had held it inside him for so
long, and now someone wanted to know about it. He described
taking his small team of engineer demolitions men into X-Ray
to blow down some trees and clear a safer landing zone for the
Then he talked about PFC Jimmy D. Nakayama, one of those
engineer soldiers, and how a misplaced napalm strike engulfed
Nakayama in the roaring flames. How he ran out into the fire
and screamed at another man to grab Jimmy's feet and help
carry him to the aid station. My blood ran cold, and the hair
stood up on the back of my neck. I had been that man on the
other end of Nakayama. I had grabbed his ankles and felt the
boots crumble, the skin peel, and those slick bones in my
hands. Again I heard Nakayama's screams. By then we were both
I knew Nakayama had died a day or two later in an Army
hospital. Nye told me that Jimmy's wife had given birth to a
baby girl the day he died - and that when Nye returned to base
camp at An Khe he found a letter on his desk. He had
encouraged Nakayama to apply for a slot at OCS. The letter
approved that application and contained orders for Nakayama to
return immediately to Ft. Benning, Georgia.
George Nye is gone now. But I want you to know what he did
with the last months of his life. He lived in Bangor, Maine.
The year was 1991, and in the fall, plane after plane loaded
with American soldiers headed home from the Persian Gulf War
stopped there to refuel. It was their first sight of home.
George and other local volunteers organized a welcome at that
desolate airport. They provided coffee, snacks, and the warm
"Welcome home, soldier" that no one ever offered George or his
fellow Vietnam veterans. George had gone to the airport to
decorate a Christmas tree for those soldiers on the day he
When we think of ourselves, we think Shakespeare, Henry IV,
Act IV, Scene 3:
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother."
When I would pitch up to spend a day or two or three with an
infantry outfit I was, at first, an object of some curiosity.
Sooner or later a break would be called and everyone would
flop down in the shade, drink some water, break out a c-ration
or a cigarette. The GI next to me would ask: "What you doing
out here?" I would explain that I was a reporter.
"You mean you are a civilian? You don't have to be here?"
Yes. "Man, they must pay you loads of money to do this." And
I would explain that, no, unfortunately I worked for UPI, the
cheapest news agency in the world. "Then you are just plain
Once I was pigeonholed, all was all right. The grunts
understood "crazy" like no one else I ever met. The welcome
was warm, friendly, and open. I was probably the only civilian
they would ever see in the field. I was a sign that someone,
anyone, outside the Big Green Machine cared how they lived and
how they died.
It didn't take very long before I truly did come to care. They
were, in my view, the best of their entire generation. When
their numbers came up in the draft, they didn't run and hide.
They didn't turn up for their physicals wearing pantyhose or
full of chemicals or drugs. Like their fathers before them,
they raised their right hands and took the oath to protect and
defend the Constitution of the United States. It is not their
fault that the war they were sent to fight was not one that
political leadership in Washington had any intention of
It is not their fault that 58,200 of them died, their
lives squandered because Lyndon Johnson and, later, Richard
Nixon could not figure out some decent way to cut our losses
and leave the Vietnamese to sort the matter out among
As I have grown older, and the book and the movie have come to
pass, I am often asked: "Doesn't this close the loop for you?
Doesn't this mean you can rest easier?" The answer is, "No,
I can't." To my dying day I will remember and honor those who
died, some in my arms. I will remember and honor those who
lived and came home carrying memories and scars that only
their brothers can share and understand.
Editor's Note: Veteran journalist Joe Galloway, who has 42
years of reporting under his belt - much of it of the military
variety - joined the 350-newspaper Knight Ridder Washington,
D.C., Bureau in November to anchor its war coverage. "We are
thrilled and honored to have Joseph Galloway, arguably the
foremost war correspondent of our time, join Knight Ridder's
war coverage team," said John Walcott, KR's Washington Bureau